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Time Has Come for Congress to Help Fix Voting System

With assistance from the Help America Vote Act, most states have now retired the punch-cards systems and lever voting machines that plagued elections in the past, most famously in Florida. This was an important first step down the path of restoring public trust in our elections. Now it is time for the next step.

Ironically, Florida is leading the way. Gov. Charlie Crist’s (R) recent decision to replace expensive and unreliable direct electronic voting machines with paper ballots counted by inexpensive optical scanners is the next big leap toward security and integrity in elections. Recently, the state of Maryland and counties in other states have joined Florida in making this shift. In Mississippi, Harrison County Clerk Gayle Parker explained that her county board voted unanimously to dump their electronic voting machines because “we’ve had a lot of problems with the machines” and “if we have a contested election, we’re not going to have a paper ballot to be able to rely on.”

Florida has adopted the voting system that we use in Minnesota, where every citizen votes by marking a paper ballot that is then counted by an optical scanner located in each polling place. These counting machines are then double-checked with post-election random audits. Crist had one overriding objective in his decision — “no more election embarrassments” — and he will be implementing these changes before the 2008 presidential election. About two dozen other states are moving in the same direction or are already there. The confidence of Minnesota voters in our paper ballot-based system is one reason why we consistently lead the nation in voter turnout. This approach also turns out to be the lowest cost and simplest to administer — important considerations for government.

Congress needs to help other states move in the same direction as Florida. The federal government must provide the funds needed to replace unverifiable direct recording electronic voting machines.

Several bills moving through the House and Senate would provide the money needed to help other states take the same steps as Florida. In the House, the bill with the most support and momentum is H.R. 811, and it is slated to go to the floor in the next few weeks. Introduced by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) with more than 200 bipartisan co-sponsors, this bill provides the financial support many states will need to move toward a verifiable system with paper ballots.

H.R. 811 rightly requires that all paperless voting systems be upgraded to produce an auditable paper record before the November 2008 presidential election (the bill permits later, staggered deadlines for other improvements). Considering the mounting evidence that paperless computerized voting machines can fail or be hacked, it is only prudent to require the production of paper record for all voting machines before our next federal election. This simple safeguard will immeasurably increase integrity, security and confidence of our democracy.

This bill deserves the support of every voter who has worried that our election system is broken. It deserves the support of election judges and poll workers frustrated by electronic voting equipment that constantly breaks down or loses votes. It deserves the support of local- and state-level elected officials who want free and fair elections but lack the money needed to fix their broken systems. And it deserves the support of every Member of Congress who has heard the anger and cynicism of citizens who no longer believe our elections can be trusted.

Congress is moving toward establishing national standards for transparency and verifiability in federal elections, seeking to demonstrate to voters everywhere that the many different systems used at the local level in our country are equally accurate and secure. H.R. 811 is an important first step in this direction.

Paper ballots, optical scanners, effective testing and post-election audits are not the end of the journey to securing our democracy — they are just the next step. And 2008 is not the end of our search for a democracy restored, it’s just the next step. I agree with Florida Gov. Crist — no more embarrassments. Our democracy cannot afford the price of another failed election.

Mark Ritchie (D) is secretary of state of Minnesota.

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